Japanese police are investigating a possible human trafficking ring after arresting 11 Chinese construction workers over visa violations and finding that 46 other labourers appear to have fled.
About 60 Chinese labourers arrived in September and were dispatched to the island of Hokkaido from a company near Tokyo to build a giant solar power plant, according to Japanese reports.
Some of those detained by Japanese authorities have said they were “deceived” by an intermediary about the work involved in Japan.
Authorities were alerted to the case when a Chinese man died on Nov 26 after he was taken to a local clinic by four other workers, according to a statement posted Tuesday by the Chinese consulate in Sapporo.
Those four men have since gone missing.
On the same day as the death, police arrested 11 Chinese people aged 27 to 62, finding two were without passports with the remaining nine allegedly having overstayed their visas.
The Chinese workers reportedly lived in housing roughly 11 miles away, and entered Japan through the port of Nagasaki or by plane in Tokyo, and were brought to the plant by a staffing agency.
Japanese authorities are looking specifically into whether the employer knew the Chinese workers lacked proper documentation.
It is unclear whether the staffing agency that brought the workers over is Chinese or Japanese.
More Chinese are seeking opportunities for work and study abroad, especially Beijing pushes its “One Belt, One Road” diplomacy plan. But more citizens traveling outside the mainland has made it harder for Chinese authorities to monitor where they are going.
In some cases, workers have been lured away from home with the promise of good work, decent pay and proper visas, only to find poor labour conditions or withheld wages upon arrival.
Chinese nationals have also been met with discrimination and tension with the local population, especially as more governments have criticised Chinese investment as “debt diplomacy.”
Chinese authorities have become more publicly involved in response.
Consular authorities in Japan are in touch with the local police, have requested proper treatment of the arrested workers and to be kept abreast of the investigation’s results, according to a statement.
The Chinese consulate in Sapporo, the capital city of the island of Hokkaido, did not immediately respond to a faxed request for further comment.
The case also comes as Japan’s ageing population faces labour shortages and as politicians discuss legislation that would allow more foreign workers in blue-collar industries such as construction and farming – a major shift given the country’s long history of tight immigration policies.
Additional reporting by Paula Jin